In a paper in the July 13, 2004, issue of Current Biology, biologists Robert Reed and Michael Serfas add a new piece to the evolutionary puzzle of the butterfly wing. By comparing among species the molecular machinery that controls wing development, the researchers are revealing how the regulation of two key genes has evolved in association with specific color patterns. The color patterns they studied vary among species, existing in a continuum including simple lines, teardrops and rounded spots.
Reed is currently at Duke University, and Serfas is at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Their work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Human Frontier Science Program.
Said Reed, "The wing pattern is really the way the butterfly communicates with the world around it. And if we can understand the developmental basis of wing patterns in terms of butterfly ecology and evolution, we can start asking some profound questions about fundamental mechanisms of biodiversification."
In their study, Reed and Serfas sought to compare how genes control the evolution of line and eyespot patterns among a number of butterfly and moth species -- including species that have such patterns and those that either lost them or that evolved before the patterns appeared in nature.
Among the species they studied were those with such evocative names as buckeye butterfly, painted lady, passion vine butterfly, Gulf fritillary, cabbage white, hornworm moth and pink bollworm.